French unions on Thursday called workers out on a new strike against a bitterly opposed pension reform being debated in parliament, but turnout was sharply down.
The fifth day of action against President Emmanuel Macron’s reform – whose headline measure is raising the legal retirement age from 62 to 64 — aims to keep up the pressure ahead of a wider mass walkout on March 7.
But unlike previous strike days, most main line trains and the Paris metro were running normally, as fewer workers participated during school holidays across most of France.
Employees at state-controlled energy giant EDF said they had lowered output by more than 3,000 megawatts, or the equivalent of three nuclear power plants, without affecting supply to end users.
On Wednesday, many hydroelectric plants had been disconnected from the grid.
Also Thursday, 30 percent of flights from Paris’ Orly airport were cancelled.
Police said they were expecting demonstrations by up to 650,000 people nationwide, after counting almost one million on Saturday – although the unions said the weekend figure was more like 2.5 million.
Union leaders were planning to join a march in the mid-sized town of Albi, northeast of Toulouse.
“We want to put the spotlight on one of the characteristics of this social movement. There’s a France of workers that wants to show it exists, that there’s more than just the big cities,” said Laurent Berger, leader of the CFDT union.
Polling shows around 70 percent of the public reject Macron’s pension reform plans, while a petition opposing them has gathered over one million signatures.
Philippe Martinez, head of the hard-left CGT union, said the plan was to “keep up pressure on MPs” to vote the bill down.
After left-wing opponents submitted thousands of amendments to delay debate, it is unclear whether the lower house will discuss its Article 7, which lays out the change to the retirement age, before running out of time on Friday.
MPs have already rejected one of the bill’s articles, designed to press companies to employ more older workers.
There is “a possible majority in the chamber to vote against” the retirement age provision, Socialist MP Philippe Brun said.
Macron himself sought to project confidence Wednesday, telling a cabinet meeting that opposition parties have “totally lost their way” over the pensions fight.
But the biggest day of action may be still to come, with unions promising to “bring France to a halt” on March 7.
They are debating whether to shift to rolling strikes after that date, with Paris metro workers and rubbish collectors already deciding in favor.